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Edna Coryell: a one-woman lacemaking revival

When Edna Coryell was 13, she traveled with her mother from their farm in Indiana to stay in the ''mammoth house'' owned by her grandparents in Philadelphia's Society Hill. There she learned to make antique lace from her grandmother, a former English teacher who had learned the craft herself from a Belgian woman who entered her work in the Centennial celebration of 1876, Mrs. Coryell says.

She promised her grandmother that ''I would teach seven people to make lace, because my grandmother was afraid the art would die out,'' she says.

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It's taken more than 80 years, but today Mrs. Coryell, who has sparked a one-woman lacemaking revival in this tiny town near Winchester, Va., has got her seven students - and dozens more. ''I don't charge for teaching,'' she explained in an interview held in her farmhouse, which smelled of Virginia apples, ''but I expect my students to teach others.''

Mrs. Coryell says she was the only grandchild taught this art, ''I expect because I was the only one interested. I wanted to learn everything as a child, and read so many books. My father used to get right peeved with me with some of the books I was reading, like on agriculture. He'd say, 'That's no kind of book for a little girl to read,' '' she recalls.

''But it was a good thing I read them,'' she declares. ''He'd always come to me on the farm to ask questions, and I'd know about planting the crops, pulling up harmful weeds.''

Her lacemaking continued until her marriage, for which she made ''lace inserts for six pairs of curtains, which is why it took two years between the proposal and the wedding,'' she says with a laugh. ''My husband said, 'You'd better hurry up with those curtains or I won't marry you.' ''

Her grandmother made a lace insert for Mrs. Coryell's wedding dress which outlasted the dress itself. ''The material had rotted,'' says Mrs. Coryell's daughter, Alice Jeffrey, ''but the lace was fine, so we transferred it onto another dress'' used at the weddings of several grandchildren.

After the wedding, Mrs. Coryell put the lacemaking aside when family responsibilities increased, and she ''nearly forgot'' how to do it. Then in 1974 , when neighbors in the Winchester area were discussing how to celebrate this country's Bicentennial, Mrs. Coryell listed all her sewing skills, like tatting and crocheting, for her homemaking club. ''I told them I once knew how to do antique lace,'' she recalls. No one there had ever seen lace made, and they encouraged her to try it again.

Her daughter explains what happened next: ''Mother tried and tried for about a week, and just couldn't remember how to do it. Then one night she said, 'If I don't remember by tomorrow morning, I'm going to quit.' She'd been praying, and she said that if the Lord intended for her to do this, He'd show her how. The next morning she came downstairs and started on it right away, remembering everything,'' Mrs. Jeffrey says.

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The antique-lace technique Mrs. Coryell uses (also called Quaker Lace or Old Roman Lace) starts with a kind of netting made from cotton, linen, or silk thread (''You can't get the proper weight thread anymore,'' Mrs. Jeffrey says). Using a double-eyed, six-inch-long needle that looks like a shuttle, and attaching the thread to what looks like a skinny ice-cream-bar stick, Mrs. Coryell demonstrates the hand-held weaving technique.

''Each knot is a knot unto itself,'' she explains, holding the thread in two hands and pulling on the netting with a line attached to her foot, so it doesn't unravel like crocheting.

So similar is this technique to fishnet-making that Mrs. Coryell's grandson decided to make it just for that purpose, the women recall. ''He was moving to the West Coast and wanted his wife to come over and learn it so she could teach it to his kids, but she was too busy packing and getting ready to go,'' Mrs. Jeffrey says.

So the grandson came instead ''and learned in two hours,'' says Mrs. Coryell proudly. ''So you see, it's not that hard if you put your mind to it.'' The grandson later taught his three boys to make the netting, Mrs. Jeffrey says.

Once she's made the net into a square or rectangle, she attaches it to a frame and overstiches it with the lace pattern, making flowers, flags, and other designs. Much of the ''fill-in,'' or background lace, is done in a circular pattern called ''Point D'Esprit,'' Mrs. Jeffrey says, ''because it can't be reproduced by machine, so that lets you know that it's handmade.''

Mrs. Coryell and her daughter take this work, along with their needles, sticks, and thread, to a dozen craft fairs each summer to demonstrate the art. ''One man from Israel told us he used to have this stuff all over the house and never thought about it or appreciated the work,'' says Mrs. Jeffrey.

''Another girl told her husband, 'So that's what that ratty old thing was that we just threw away,' '' she says. The couple left, asking each other if they could get home before the trashman got there.

Mrs. Coryell says she's received dozens of letters from women, all over 80, saying that they still do antique lace. ''I write them that they better get busy and teach (lacemaking) like me, so we can revive it,'' she says.

The enthusiastic responses she has received lead Mrs. Coryell to believe that her efforts are paying off. And there are other signs that lacemaking is making at least a small comeback.

''When we first started,'' says Mrs. Jeffrey, ''you could only get lace needles from Salt Lake City. Now, we've found places in California and New Hampshire that sell them.''

Mrs. Coryell has slowed down her teaching lately, ''but she can still supervise the classes,'' her daughter says.

''I've taught my seven,'' says Mrs. Coryell with evident satisfaction. ''I had to. I promised my grandmother.''

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